When some years have passed since a divorce and each person has moved on in creating an independent life, certain feelings can linger that cause confusion. Here are some of the comments I hear from clients in counseling:
“It’s been five years, she’s remarried and I still feel this strange sense of responsibility for her happiness.”
“I have zero interest in getting back together with him, but he’s still in my inner world. I’m still relating my current life to thoughts of him.”
And the two questions that follow are: Why do I still feel this way? And is there something wrong with me? The second question is easier to answer than the first. No there’s nothing wrong with you. Many, many people have these same thoughts and feelings and there’s nothing wrong with having them.
The first question is more complicated to address. Of course, every situation is different and each relationship is unique. The ties we create over the course of the relationship and the shared history are powerful factors in our life story. They are part of the fabric of our life and contribute to how we develop. So when we part ways in a marriage, our experience doesn’t stay behind. The feelings and experience carry forward, even when we choose to leave the other person. We leave nothing behind, even when we desperately want to.
It’s the “wanting to” feel differently and the expectations about how we are supposed to feel toward an ex-spouse that causes confusion. It’s unsettling because many wonder if it means they should have stayed married, or they fear their current partner will be threatened by openly discussing these feelings. But, having these feelings does not mean you should have stayed married, and whether or not to discuss the situation with a current partner isn’t germane to this discussion.
We bond with others in complex ways beyond our intellectual understanding. We allow our partners access to us physically and emotionally in ways we don’t allow anyone else. There is a connection that is not necessarily severed by emotional pain and legal divorce. Conventional logic would say that if there is enough pain, the bond should be broken, but that often isn’t the case.
To have an on-going bond without active love or contact may seem weird and dysfunctional. It’s not. Our inner worlds do not operate by conventional, linear logic. Also, having children with someone can add a dimension to this bond that makes it more “acceptable.” But there are many who don’t have children and still experience this on-going feeling.
Being married to someone (with or without children) means you are family. Family with or without a blood connection is a powerful force in our lives. We may “disown” blood relatives but we still have a sense of connection, despite our bad feelings about them. The bond of family is not something we can easily shake. With many people, I’ve explored the ways this feeling/bond potentially may be dysfunctional, and some aspects of it certainly can be. The basic feeling of connection, however, despite the confusion about the relationship, is in fact “normal.”
Our relational worlds are complex, and there is much about their workings that we do not understand. We spend a lifetime gaining in our understanding, but once we’ve figured something out, something new often presents itself and the learning continues. We want to have a clear view of how things work in relationships but clarity here is elusive. Best to stay open-minded, curious, and humble in our understanding of ourselves and our relations with others.
The lead up to divorce is painful and confusing. The aftermath can be, too. We hope for greater understanding and, although time helps, our emotions don’t lend themselves to neat, orderly packages. Our feelings are meant to inform us but don’t necessarily provide us with all the answers. If there is a bond that persists, don’t judge it or actively work to eliminate it. Pay attention to it, respect it, and learn more about yourself in the process.